Large Groups Of Neanderthals Ate Giant Elephants, Recent Evidence Suggests
Thomas Merkt / 500px via Getty Images

The straight-tusked elephant, weighing roughly the amount of eight cars and standing at a height of four meters (13 feet), walked northern Europe some 125,000 years ago, and a recent study of a burial site of these elephants shows that Neanderthals hunted and skillfully butchered these walking behemoths, Science reported.

In the 1980s, coal miners near the site of Neumark-Nord in central Germany, near the city of Halle, initially discovered the remains of these elephants. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of 70 of these giants over the course of a decade, wherein other animal remains and tools were discovered. Given the challenge of slaying the now-extinct elephant, which nearly doubles the size of modern African elephants, and the amount of food a single elephant would provide, scientists believe this indicates Neanderthals lived in much larger communities than previously suspected.

Neanderthals were believed to be very mobile hominins that never lived and moved around in groups of more than 20. However, a single adult straight-tusked elephant could provide meat for 350 over one week, or 100 people over a month, the researchers estimated.

“This is really hard and time-consuming work,” said Lutz Kindler, an archaeozoologist at the MONREPOS Archaeological Research Center. “Why would you slaughter the whole elephant if you’re going to waste half the portions?”

Months of studying nearly 3,400 bones yielded consistent evidence showing careful butchering of the animals, Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, another archaeozoologist at MONREPOS and co-author of the study, found. Furthermore, the Neanderthals “went for every scrap of meat and fat,” said Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist from the University of Leiden and a co-author of the study.

Neanderthals walked the earth for nearly 300,000 years before disappearing around 40,000 years ago. They used thrusting and throwing spears to hunt, which have been found at other archaeological sites. For this particular prey, Neanderthals likely used highly coordinated efforts to take down a singled-out elephant. Most of the remains are of adult male straight-tusked elephants, which spent large amounts of time alone — away from herds.

The social skills required to coordinate an attack and successfully butcher the animal for consumption further emphasize that Neanderthals were more complex than scientists previously thought, or as popular culture might depict them.

In addition to skilled hunting, butchering, and preserving, Neanderthals also created yarn, art, and various complex tools, and had special burial practices for their dead, per CNN.

Britt M. Starkovich, a researcher at the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen in Germany, released a commentary on the study as it was published, though she was not involved in the research. She said, “To the more recognizably human traits that we know Neanderthals had — taking care of the sick, burying their dead, and occasional symbolic representation — we now also need to consider that they had preservation technologies to store food and were occasionally semi sedentary or that they sometimes operated in groups larger than we ever imagined.”

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